Sal Lamboglia in Cafe Spaghetti’s backyard last year. Photo: Lauren Roche
When the chef Sal Lamboglia opened Cafe Spaghetti last May, New York was only starting to emerge from its pandemic haze, hiring was a headache for operators, and success was hardly guaranteed. Still, it worked out pretty well: Lines stretched down the street during the restaurant’s early days, and neighbors quickly turned into regulars. (It no doubt helps that the majority of the restaurant’s seats are in a spacious backyard, ensuring “outdoor dining” was built into Cafe Spaghetti’s business plan from the beginning.) Critics liked it too: Pete Wells gave it two stars in the Times, while Eater NY’s Robert Sietsema wrote that the pastas were the best he’d had all year. Now Lamboglia is planning to expand lunch service and make the brunch menu a bit eggier. But don’t worry: “We’ll still obviously offer pasta,” he says. “We can’t not.” There’s another development in the works, as well: With Cafe Spaghetti firmly established, Lamboglia is getting set to open a second restaurant that — brace yourself — will not be Italian.
Tell me about the new restaurant. It’s close to Cafe Spaghetti?
Yeah. I’ve been down here for almost 20 years. I have two kids. We go to the park. We eat ice cream at Brooklyn Farmacy. So I’m always looking at spaces. I’ve been getting some calls. There’s a space I was looking at, 215 Columbia Street. It’s been a lot of things in the last decade. After the restaurant that was most recently there shut down, I locked it in. I wasn’t planning on opening up another place this soon, to be honest. I’m just going with the flow. I don’t know when exactly the opening will be, but sometime in late summer.
Did it feel like a space you couldn’t pass up?
Yes, that’s how it felt. Also this space, as I said, has been many things. Years ago, it was a very well known Italian restaurant that my dad worked at, 215 Cucina Napoletana, for about a year. I felt a little connection to the space, being that my dad had cooked in that kitchen. I don’t know too much about what I’m going to do as far as the menu and items, but I do have a name. It’s going to be called Swoony’s.
What is that again?
Swoony’s. S-W-O-O-N-Y, apostrophe S. Like you’re swooning over something, you’re gushing over something. I was chatting about it with my designer, Matt Maddy. Of course, you’re thinking of all these names, and nothing sounds right. And I said to him, “Swoony’s.” “Yeah, Swoony’s.” I’m sure you’re probably thinking to yourself, What the heck is Swoony’s?
You read my mind.
I like the name because it’s a little out of the ordinary, but it has a New York feel. Like, “Where you going tonight?” “We’re going to Swoony’s for a martini.” Or “Hey, meet me at Swoony’s. Let’s grab a bite.” It just made sense for me, and so I’m going to call it Swoony’s.
Is it going to be similar in style to Cafe Spaghetti? It’s not going to be Italian. Once the wheels start turning a bit more, I’m going to do a bunch of R&D. Then in the next month or two, I’ll have it a little more locked down. Having gone through Cafe Spaghetti, I now know a couple more things as far as what to expect.
It’s almost exactly a year since Cafe Spaghetti opened, which means you’ve navigated a really difficult, confusing time. How have you seen it change?
When I first took over this space, which was pretty early on in ’21, we were still in the thick of it. When we opened up in May ’22, we were still feeling it. I would say a month or two after, we could see the light, that we were on the other side of it. But nothing like now. Having gone through that, I feel a little bit more confident now that we’re in a better place, collectively and for us at the restaurant. It’s nice to be able to breathe again.
In his Times review, Pete Wells called Cafe Spaghetti “the anti-Carbone.” What did you make of that?
I worked with Rich Torrisi back at A Voce a long time ago. I have a huge amount of respect for him, and of course for Mario Carbone and what they’ve done, but I was in no way really going for that. I do feel like this is what I was born to do. I grew up eating pomodoro, vongole, garlic-and-oil, and rice balls every Sunday, you know what I mean? As far as feeling a certain way about the comparison, I think that’s for the reader and the customers to decide.
People tend to categorize “red-sauce joints” together, but there are places like Bamonte’s — which are more formal, where dinner is a production — and there are places like Gino’s in Bay Ridge, more low-key, more family destinations. You have a different crowd than Carbone, obviously.
Yeah, obviously. It’s different styles. Cafe Spaghetti, to me, I wanted it to be a local, neighborhood-y, family place. I live up the block, legitimately. There’s so much Italian, and I’m happy that the spirit and the style have been a good addition to the neighborhood.
Did you want it to feel more like an Ortobello’s or a Gino’s, to name two places close to where you grew up?
No, not necessarily. I had friends who worked at Ortobello. I had friends who worked at Gino’s. I actually got a job offer from them 15 years ago. Of course, everything changes, neighborhoods change. But having grown up there, going into the cafés with my grandfather back in the day, I’ll never forget the memory of eating a panelle sandwich with ricotta and lemon on a seeded bread for three bucks. Of course, we can’t sell it for that price; otherwise we wouldn’t have a job. But that era is part of who I am. Eating at Cafe Spaghetti, I think you get some of that. It’s casual. We’re not so buttoned-up. We’re just super-passionate about Italian cuisine — and spaghetti.